I’m going to start keeping a running tally of people who have said to me, “I have a lot of ideas, but I could never be a writer because my spelling is horrible.”

It’s something I hear often enough that I’ve already lost count, and I consider it a very sad thing. There are plenty of great writers who admit that their spelling isn’t the best — that’s why they have editors!

There’s a difference between being a good writer and a good speller. There’s an even bigger difference between being a good storyteller and a good speller. Writing and storytelling are talents that not everyone has, and they’re much harder to fake if you don’t have the knack for them. Spelling, though? That’s easy.

As long as you know your weaknesses, you can own them and conquer them.

  • Spell-check can be a guide, but don’t depend solely on it. There’s a lot that it doesn’t catch. Still, it’s a good start.

  • Many computer operating systems have a dictionary widget that sits right on your desktop; fire that up, and as you’re writing, plug in any word you’re not sure about.
      (There’s an inherent paradox here, I know: how do you look up the spelling of a word you don’t know how to spell? It’s easy. Type in your attempt. If it comes up, with the right definition, it means you were right. If not, start playing with it. Usually the beginning of a word is straightforward, and usually there are only a few possible variations if you sound it out. Trial and error can often get you on the right path. If not, try looking up a word that means the same thing and see if your word comes up in the definition, or try a thesaurus. Frequently misspelled words will often trigger a “Did you mean this other word?” suggestion on Google or your other favorite search engine. So no, you don’t have to know how a word is spelled to find out how to spell it.)
  • Ask a trusted friend to read through what you’ve written and mark corrections on it. Take the feedback constructively and not as criticism, and pay attention to the words you’ve missed.

These tips don’t just apply to your manuscript, either. If need be, ask someone to eye your query letter and other correspondence, as well.

Above all, learn to spot trends. If you get a sense of words you habitually misuse or misspell, it’ll be easier for you to catch those words for yourself in the future. If you have trouble spotting the trends, make yourself a list of each word you’ve misspelled, and tally up the number of times those words appear. It’ll feel a little uncomfortable to go through your own writing so critically, but that careful attention is what helps us all improve.

By the time you’re ready to submit to a publisher or an agent, no one will know what went into cleaning your work up. They’ll just see an impeccable story that stands on its own merits.

You definitely don’t have to be a good speller to be a good or successful writer, you just have to be able to play one!

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  • Steve – Kestrel's Aerie July 6, 2010, 11:05 am

    One of the best writers I know is dyslexic. So not only does her spelling suffer, but so does her syntax at times. She’s still an awesome writer, whose blog is a favorite of many. She has a successful podcast, and I’ve been privileged to copyedit some of her stories.

    So you can’t spell well…so what? If you have something to say, and can say it well, poor spelling is only a speedbump.

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